Posts Tagged ‘miracles’

Belief in miracles subverts understanding: David Hume

April 29, 2011

I arrived on campus Wednesday just as the sirens started to wail, but we were given the all-clear in time for our last NW class to proceed. Heard good reports on alt-energy and pre-Pueblo/pre-Columbian civilization from Matt & Nathan. Another of George Washington’s walnut trees hit the ground in front of Cope Hall, but on the whole we were very lucky. They weren’t so lucky a couple hundred miles to our south.

The storms knocked out our Internet at home, making “Dead Day” (aka Study Day) an especially good one for reflecting on luck. I guess I’d call that Tuscaloosa firefighter whose 8-year old survived a terrifying Oz moment lucky.

 I said, R.J., which is my older son, get up, son. And right when I said get up and I put my hands on him, the walls went, and he went. He just – he left. The tornado took him right then. I held onto what I have which is James Peter, and my wife held onto my other son, which I could hear her praying to my left. And I was praying over my boy, and I said -and I could see his little face (unintelligible) I could see him. He was looking up. I said it’s OK. It’s OK. And I was getting hit, you know? I was just shielding him. And my wife yells – she said: Do you have R.J.? I said no. I said I don’t. And then, I heard her get louder praying. And then, I started – I kept going, and I look up, and my oldest son come walking right through the rubble. And I got…

NORRIS: He walked back.

Mr. EPPES: He walked back the rubble.

NORRIS: How old is R.J.?

Mr. EPPES: R.J. is eight. My boys are eight, six and four.

Despite Older Daughter’s insistence I wouldn’t call the youngster’s incredibly lucky survival a “miracle,” for all the good reasons David Hume gave us.

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’

Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to [miracles] is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

It was astonishing, extraordinary, inexplicable, sure… but not a sign of divine grace or intervention, unless your notion of the divine includes arbitrary cruelty and death for all those whose luck ran out, and hell on earth for so many of the survivors.

And yet the man in Alabama says, astonishingly: “I do know that neither my wife nor I would have lost any of our faith if we lost any of our children.” The claim to know such a thing, and to boast of it, is as close to miraculous as David Hume or I can imagine. And “contrary to custom and experience,” in this context, is a nice way of saying crazy.


October 24, 2009

Yesterday’s Holocaust panel discussion, with so many stories of survival against acts of the most inconceivably vicious inhumanity, was an inspiration and testament to the indomitable, resourceful, naturally-resilient human spirit. I’m afraid I found considerably less inspiring, though, the attempt of some panelists to extract religious succor and supernatural salvation in the horrific events they witnessed and experienced.

Both of the liberators, Mr. Gentry and Mr. Dorris, spoke of the shock and awe of finding themselves at death’s door, in hell, at Dachau. Both prayed to be delivered from the stench, literal and moral, of the evil inferno their fellow humans had devised to torture other fellow humans.

“Take care of me,” Mr. Gentry says he implored his God. “And he did.” And then his buddy, three feet away, was blown to kingdom come.

During Q-&-A Mr. Gentry said he gradually came to understand that a soldier can’t count on anyone to save him, not even a blustering, profane, street-wise Chicagoan named Mike. He can only trust in his God.

Mr. Dorris told a more uplifting story of praying for deliverance from hell on earth, and having his human faith reaffirmed by  an act of simple human kindness and gratitude when a prisoner attempted to repay his participation in their rescue with what must have been his last pitiable treasure on earth, the remnant of a cigarette butt he’d been hoarding in an old rusty can.

And then Mr. Lesser related his sickening, heartbreaking account of the Nazi “monster” who mauled and murdered an infant as her parents and siblings begged for a merciful decency that was not to be. He grabbed the baby by the ankles and smashed her savagely against the door-post.

Pressed by a questioner later to say whether religion was any kind of solace for him in attempting to make sense of such senseless barbarism, Mr. Lesser played the inevitable “free will” card. As usual, it was insufficient.

As Mrs. Hahn simply observed, this– the Holocaust– was not God’s work. Humans did it, freely or not.

What would be more monstrous: humans behaving brutally, hatefully, and maliciously when they might, theoretically, have chosen otherwise? Or, an omniscient, all-knowing Immortal freely creating humans with a capacity for brutality, hatred, and malice, and with a will to express it? (Notice, please: an omniscient creator would have to have known in advance that his brutal Nazi, all his brutal Nazis, and Klansmen, and Janjaweeds et al,  would in fact not chose otherwise.)

It’s a rhetorical question, each of us will answer it for ourselves. If a different answer than mine is what carried those brave survivors and liberators through the dark days and nights of their travail in those unspeakably obscene death camps, I will not begrudge them a moment’s comfort.

blowing cloverBut for myself, Emerson’s words in the Divinity School Address, illustrating the free human capacity for intolerant oppression (“This was Jehovah come down out of heaven. I will kill you, if you say he was a man,” etc.) come back  with renewed force and fresh application:

“[Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and hefalling rain knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

“The blowing clover and the falling rain”: much less monstrous, much more miraculous and inspiring, to me.


July 12, 2009


But seriously, Jesus and Mo, and Atheist Barmaid, are you ok with naturalized spirituality? I understand being impatient with equivocal agnostics and ecumenical Unitarians and pseudo-scientific superstition mongers and would-be Red Sea-parting miracle workers, but can’t we acknowledge the reality of geist and still fully affirm our commitment to “the scientific image”?

Can’t we still admire the rainbow, as Dawkins has said, even after we’ve learned something about light spectra and the visual  cortex?

Can’t we admit our own materiality while yet treasuring its human instantiation? William James: “To any one who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation was among matter’s possibilities.”

“To any one who has
ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent the mere fact
that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought
to make matter sacred ever after. . . . That beloved incarnation
was among matter’s possibilities.”

More on this soon…